Q&A with Comstock Saloon Chef Carlo Espinas

| March 27, 2012 | 0 Comments
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Carlo Espinas. Photo: Liza Gershman
Carlo Espinas. Photo: Liza Gershman

Comstock Saloon opened in North Beach in 2009. Saloon Keepers Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger crafted the bar program, and the menu from chef Carlo Espinas is classic Gold Coast San Francisco. His menu favorites are braised beef shank & bone marrow pot-pie and potted pork with country ham, mustard and warm bread (not currently featured on the menu). Espinas serves up a “Free Lunch” on Friday, for any customer who buys two adult beverages. This writer sampled the Scotch Egg Salad on a recent visit, and the chef’s recipe is cited below. The saloon’s design, menu and staff uniform all reflect an earlier era, and the building’s history can be dated to 1907.

Espinas is from Fremont and started working in the food industry as a teenager. He worked at Café Tallulah (now shuttered) and at Noah’s Bagels. Initially interested in journalism, he worked as a freelance writer while living in New York after graduating from American University. He decided restaurant work had major appeal and returned to the Bay Area and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy, while working at Incanto and À Côté. Around this time, he did poultry prep and frying for the much celebrated fried chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty. Espinas worked as the opening chef for Piccino and later went on to work at Camino Restaurant in Oakland.

Espinas said that he still visits Russell Moore at Camino and that he learned to properly use fire from Moore. With this method, “it’s a boldness to treat the ingredients the way that you want rather than the way everyone else does.”

The young chef lives in the Mission and is single. He enjoys cooking for friends and playing “an intense game” of table tennis.

How is your cooking style unfolding at Comstock?
I’m not the same stereotypical male chef and like simple or country cooking. That means I am not as enamored with modern techniques and take different clues from different cultures. You get something fresh without being overwrought. With our cocktails, there are at most three to five ingredients. So we go with simple food combinations that are not complicated. Our pig and a biscuit dish is inspired by a visit to a Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken at the airport in North Carolina.

I’m used to working with a changing menu but I’m so tired of the pepper jelly here [Editor’s Note: the pepper jelly and crackers remain a popular staple item]. We have an extra menu to show some creativity and lightness, while being in tune with the seasons. People trust us and our regular customers stay happy with the food.

What are your favorite spots to shop for food?
To be honest, I don’t do a lot of shopping for myself. When I do cook, I have a specific dish and an ingredient list. It’ll be a one-pot kind of thing, a soup or stew.

I like to go Rainbow a lot, and the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market during the week. I avoid going to the market there on Saturdays. If I’m not out of the house by nine, forget about heading there.

What are your favorite off-night spots?
I’m friends with the crew at farm:table. I’ll drive there on my way to work. It’s fun to see a lot of the same characters when I stop in there.

I go to Commonwealth on my way home. If I see a spot at the bar, I’ll sneak in and sit there. It’s a place that embodies the best of both worlds, and you have the very fine dining that’s also comfortable. Their squid dish is good.

What is your favorite meal to have with your family?
In my family, eating crab together is a big one. For Thanksgiving, we always have crab and turkey. For Christmas, we do roast beef.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
I have a lot of those. Smoked salmon was one of the first things I was obsessed with as a kid. When I enjoy, say, a tuna melt, that meal is all I can think of for the entire week. I live right around the corner from Mr. Pickle’s, and I enjoy their traditional pastrami sandwich from the counter. It’s called the Diana, and is number five on the menu. I love smoked meats and smoked fish.

Where do you think we are with food in the Bay Area?
Comfort food had a good run and then we saw cool stuff coming out of the food trucks. Places like Benu and Saison are doing interesting food. SF rules the middle ground for food and that continues to develop. When I travel to other cities, there can be dead zones for food.

Any news you can share?
It’s hard to get away from work but I love to travel around the U.S. I plan on visiting Nashville, where my friend from Bakesale Betty’s owns a spot called Dozen, which is a sweet shop. I’d like to also go to Austin. I recently went to New Orleans and had a lot of baked oysters. New Orleans is similar to San Francisco because it’s a cocktail town, which means you can’t really find a great salad. After three days, I need to take a break from that.

What’s in your future?
I really like starting things, and have a personality suited towards that. I’m always looking for new projects. It’s important to see things and really execute, but I’m restless.

Scotch Egg

Recipe: Scotch Egg
Carlo Espinas, Comstock Saloon

Ingredients:
1/2 lb bulk sausage
4 medium boiled eggs, peeled –so we simmer the eggs for 10 minutes and then cool in an ice bath
2 eggs – for egg wash
Approx. 2 cups Flour for dredging
Approx. 4 cups Breadcrumbs – I prefer coarse breadcrumbs, like panko, for texture.
2 quarts fryer oil – we use rice bran or canola typically

Instructions:
1. We use about 2 oz of sausage per egg. If you don’t have a scale handy, you can just divide the sausage into 4 portions.

2. When the eggs are cooled and peeled, pack the sausage around each egg. When done, put the covered eggs into the refrigerator to cool and firm up. About an hour or so.

3. Set up your fryer, whether it’s a fry daddy or a stove top set up. We’re aiming for 325 degrees.

4. Set up your dredging line: have your flour ready in one container. The egg wash in a bowl next to that. The breadcrumbs in a container on the right.

5. When everything is set, take one egg and roll it in the flour, then evenly coat it in egg wash and then lastly roll it in the breadcrumbs. After all the eggs are done, you are ready to fry.

6. Fry the eggs for about 10-12 minutes, until the outside has a nice crispy brown texture and the sausage is cooked through. You don’t want to overcrowd your fryer, so you might end up frying only 1 or 2 eggs at a time.

The nice thing about these eggs is that they can be done ahead of time. If you’re doing a dinner party, you can fry them early in the day and then give them a quick warm up in the oven when you need them. Even at room temperature, they are delicious.

Historically, they were a lunchtime item, so they would be cooked in the morning for someone’s lunch.

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About the Author ()

Mary Ladd is a freelance writer and event professional based in her hometown of San Francisco. Her writing has been featured in SF Weekly, Tasting Table, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. She has shuttled Anthony Bourdain around town and mastered the art of properly loading a catering van in a flash. Mary has eaten the world’s hottest burger and loves to cook and eat. Follow her at @mladdfood